Kings of Leon: Identity Crisis

Kings of Leon

The Warfield

San Francisco, CA

October 17, 2008

Kings of Leon: Identity Crisis

During their five year history, the Kings of Leon have evolved away from their original rootsy, old-school, garage rock to a highly polished sonic arena rock. There is very little difference now between their sound and many more mainstream popular acts, see e.g. Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party etc., etc. You need only compare the Kings' early songs Red Morning Light or Molly’s Chamber to a new song like Closer from their new album and the difference is easy to hear. While this has disappointed many of their early fans, it has led to much greater popularity. So, what do I know?

This is the second time I have seen Kings of Leon. The first time was January 28, 2005 at Slim’s in San Francisco. Yes, I am one of the early disappointed fans. The Kings played before a couple hundred people at Slim’s who had all heard the early buzz about a rocking outfit from Tennessee. The band was the retro image of the 1970s: long Leif Garret hair, mustaches. They were a throw-back and they rocked. Hard. The sound was Lynyrd Skynyrd meets The Clash. In those days, they were frequently described as a southern-fried Strokes. The band was very popular in Europe and looked destined for big things.

Three years and three CDs later, virtually a different band by the same name is now making it big in the UK and America. Now, clean shaven, with hyper-trendy haircuts; they would otherwise represent my worst nightmare of a ballsy band co-opted by some craven Simon Cowell publicist. They indeed look like the final contestants of an American Idol for rock bands. And their last two albums have certainly sounded that way. The songs are filled with non-sequitur crescendos, divorced from the emotional content of the music or lyrics, like some southern-flavored testosterone version of Celine Dion. They have been meticulously groomed for rock stardom. Of course, I did say that this would otherwise represent my worst nightmare of a band gone wrong if they didn’t look so uncomfortable in this new persona and if the music were worse. Although the new sound is neither what first attracted me to the band nor what I prefer personally, I can’t say that it is necessarily bad- though the new hit single Sex on Fire is admittedly pretty lame. But the band is more popular than ever. They sold out two nights at the Warfield and Sex on Fire is #1 in England. And despite aping U2, like every other band, the songs are not that bad, even if free of any memorable hooks, they are not offensive. And the kids love it.

So, I had my worries going to see the band last night at the Warfield since there was every indication that the band had indeed sold-out. Nevertheless, the Kings played a genuinely great show. The crowd was hugely enthusiastic, the band confident and more professional than ever. Even the new sonic rock sound was much better live than on their new album. In fact, they almost rocked the new songs to the point of being fun, though not as fun as when they played older hits Taper Jean Girl and Molly’s Chamber. Still, it does seem that the band is having an identity crisis, unsure whether they want to be the next Rolling Stones or the next U2. The only remaining question is: will the real Kings of Leon please stand up?